Obama is going to Pakistan. India is not amused.

The announcement Thursday that President Obama would visit Pakistan next year has sapped enthusiasm in India for his visit in early November. The timing of was insensitive to India, critics say.

Susan Walsh/AP Photo
President Barack Obama speaks during a rally for Oregon gubernatorial candidate John Kitzhaber in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Oct. 20. The President is scheduled to visit India next month and Pakistan in 2011.

The announcement Thursday that President Obama will visit Pakistan in 2011 has further sapped enthusiasm in India for Mr. Obama’s visit here next month.

For much of the 20th century, the US pursued a “hyphenated” foreign policy toward India and Pakistan. Washington attempted to balance diplomatic visits and trade deals it offered to one country, considering its relationship to the other. Given the strong military ties between Washington and Islamabad, this resulted in limiting US-India relations.

As India began to emerge economically, Washington began to “de-hyphenate” its South Asian diplomacy. India and the US forged a landmark civilian nuclear trade deal, something not offered to Pakistan, a country with nuclear proliferation in its recent past.

Perception in India

But under Obama, Pakistan has used its leverage over the Afghan war to distract the US from deepening ties with India. The perception in New Delhi is that Pakistan’s gambit is working. Analysts here see little momentum behind Obama's India visit, with some worrying that the announcement of his intention to go to Pakistan next year may actually send relations between the US and India backward.

“This is going to do some damage to the relationship” between Washington and New Delhi, says Sumit Ganguly, an Indian-American scholar of South Asia currently on sabbatical in New Delhi. “Now you will hear the expression in New Delhi ‘re-hyphenation.’ ”

Under the Obama administration, the US and India have struggled to shift their relationship into a higher gear, and of late, the gears have been grinding.

Over the summer, the US announced it would continue arms sales to Pakistan – despite revelations about the country’s involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks.

That followed a joint US-China statement last year that offered help “on issues related to South Asia.” India bristled at the notion of Chinese involvement in the subcontinent, particularly given close Chinese ties to Pakistan and its own deepening rivalry with Beijing.

Mixed messages?

To be sure, the Obama administration has showered New Delhi with some diplomatic honors. Obama invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington for his administration’s first state dinner. And, following diplomatic protocol, Obama comes to India for a reciprocal visit slated to start Nov. 4.

Prior to the White House announcement, says Dr. Ganguly, Indians were starting to console themselves about Obama's recent attention to them. “The Indians were actually saying to themselves, ‘Look, he’s not going to Pakistan.’ ”

He calls the timing of Obama's announcement “myopic,” adding: “It sets a very poor tone just on the eve of the visit to India.”

The US embassy in New Delhi declined to comment on the issue, referring instead to today’s White House statement on the Pakistan trip.

The announcement of a Pakistan trip came after Obama met with a Pakistani delegation this week. Pakistan’s Army chief, foreign minister, and other senior officials are visiting Washington as part of an ongoing strategic dialogue focusing on the Afghan war.

“The President explained that he would not be stopping in Pakistan during his trip to Asia next month, and committed to visiting Pakistan in 2011, as well as welcoming President Zardari to Washington,” read the White House statement.

Other analysts here downplayed the announcement.

“This is not totally surprising, and neither should India be very worried about it,” says Suba Chandran, a security analyst with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.

He says that Obama signaled early on in his tenure that he would not focus as hard as his predecessor, President Bush, on deepening a strategic partnership with India.

But while Obama has given more attention to Pakistan in an effort to find an exit to the Afghan war, Mr. Chandran sees little danger of “re-hyphenation” given the broader economic and defense interests between India and the United States.

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